There was something misleading about the 10th anniversary festivities for the Earsay record label, which took place last week at a three-day festival in the club of Haozen Hashlishit (The Third Ear) record store in Tel Aviv (to which the label belongs). In effect, it all began much earlier, shortly after the famous store opened at its original location on Sheinkin Street.
"When we opened the store, we realized very soon that the business of record production is significant for a store that deals with special things, material for collectors and the fringe," said Miki Dotan, the CEO of Haozen Hashlishit. "It began with a reissuing of existing recordings. The first was the Aharit Hayamim band, which was not available at all. At the same time, almost by chance, we issued a recording of Jean Conflict live. Sheinkin woke up. Self-producing bands wanted shelf space and we supported them."
In those years, in what is now considered the forebear of the label, Haozen Hashlishit issued materials that eventually became classics of the local fringe scene.
The bands Pollyanna Frank, Plastic Venus, Afor Gashum, DXM, Hashafan Hanachon, Hapeh Vehatlafayim, and of course the first recording of Nosei Hamigba'at all entered their catalog. In the pub behind the store, while watching clips of those bands, Dotan confirms that "it was joyful."
But the party ended six years later, and the label was frozen. "There was a feeling that we had nothing more to contribute," said Eli Hayon, the current manager of Earsay. "At the time there was a boom of signing up ostensibly small and alternative artists in the major labels, like Hed Artzi that signed up Nosei Hamigba'at. We felt that the added value of our label had come to an end. Everything connected to us was taken by the major companies. There was a sense of very great activity in the large recording companies, but then it came to an end. They stopped signing up artists just as fast as they had begun."
The change took place in 1998 when Hayon got the master recording of Blown Again's self titled album (Oron Sherri, a member of the band, is now the soloist of Haivrit). The members of the band were customers of the store, and Hayon decided that he had to issue their disc.
He decided to issue limited and numbered editions in recycled cardboard jackets, and promised to issue an average of one disc a month during the first year of the existence of the renewed label - named Earsay - in order to build up a catalog that would justify its existence.
Among the first releases was Nisrefet, Avi Pitchon's band; the second album of Hamahapecha Hameyuteret; and "Supermarket," the first RockFour album in English.
"One of the things that I emphasized was that most of the things should be connected with the outside world, that there would be a dialogue with what's happening in the world, even in terms of the language. That we would be able to sell outside of Israel," Hayon said.
Although Magda, Haozen Hashlishit's world music label, is the company's main export channel, Earsay has also signed up artists who have performed overseas: Monotonix, Useless ID, and recently Midnight Peacocks.
"We have to stop treating music in Israel as something meant only for local consumption," Hayon said. "In the same way that an Israeli writer wants to be translated into foreign languages, a sculptor wants to be exhibited and Web sites and high-tech firms want to succeed. Already in 1999 I anticipated that every other band would sing in English and would want to have an international career, and patriots of Hebrew attacked me with what I considered hollow arguments. With this label I have no advantage when it comes to a mainstream recording that can be issued at Hed Artzi or NMC. There are those who know how to do that better."
Hayon and Dotan are not committed to a uniform musical style on the label. With the exception of the reissues (among others Ha'Shlosharim, Ha'Churchillim, the sound track of the play "Queen of the Bathtub," and the albums of alternative bands such as Ma'atz, Earsay's frighteningly eclectic variety also includes Yuval Gurevich, Geisha Nu, Mad Bliss, Shalom Gad, Elephant Parade, Panic Ensemble, Windy & Destiny and more.
The difference between the label's first incarnation and its second one is clear, according to Dotan.
"During the first round there was only Channel 1, without cable, without Internet," he said. "It's perfectly obvious than anyone who was not in a recording company was not exposed. That's why we were approached by groups who didn't get a place in the mainstream. There wasn't really any artistic style beyond the fact that it was fringe. Today the style is broader. It includes types of world music, of more melodic alternative music."
Hayon says that he recommends self-producing albums to anyone who is able, but understands the advantage that artists are looking for when they ask to join Earsay.
The label takes upon itself the post-production expenses and has decided that it will only issue high-quality discs.
The Haozen Hashlishit club, which opened eight months ago, serves as a natural stage for artists signed up by the label and enables collaboration among them. And the original store should not be forgotten:
"I'm not sure than when a new disc by Panic Ensemble is issued it will be placed at the front of the Tower store in Herzliya. Here, we're not embarrassed to put it alongside Gidi Gov's new disc."
Dotan chooses his bands according to clear criteria: They must make a statement, and have internal cohesion and a desire to perform. "A large percentage of the disc sales takes place today at performances, in places where the things are happening," he says. "We need people with whom we can work."
But profitability is not the top priority of the Earsay bosses. "There has to be someone who's obsessed with it, otherwise it will die out," says Dotan. "There's no money to be earned here. We've become accustomed to the fact that we do things for the money, but you can do things for the fun of it too. We've lost money on the label every month, but we continue because it's important. It's part of our role in the community that provides us with a good living in other things. We're active in the music and film community in Israel. We live on that and some of it we return to the community, by supporting such projects."
Earsay is almost the last vestige of a considerable group of alternative labels that were active in the past decade, including Fact and Audio Collage, that have mostly disappeared by now. Hayon is not afraid that he is next.
"I was there when they announced the death of the record," he said. "So what? It's crap. The disc won't die just as records won't die. Things may not be the way they are now and it will exist alongside the other formats, but 16-year-olds still come to buy old-fashioned records. There's a dramatic increase in their sales. All over the world, there hasn't been a single day when they stopped making records. They've never stopped issuing them. I've been at Haozen for 21 years and we've always brought new records that come out. Here in Israel they gave them a dishonorable burial. They may not sell as they once did, but they haven't died. There's an audience for them. If it's 100,000 or 1,000 or 500 people, they also need them and someone has to provide that. It's impossible to ignore an audience of 500 because there's a potential for 100,000. Haozen has always addressed the audience of 500 too."